Are We Sure We Know How to Read Torah Sources?
The Yerushalmi, Rashba, and Korban HaEidah on the limits of the rules of Hebrew language
Torah literature - all of it - has always been about language. Words convey meaning and that meaning is given context by grammar. Clarity relies on language.
But what if the rules we use to parse language aren’t absolute? What happens to that clarity?
The Mishna (Rosh Hashana 1:8) rules that witnesses who fear they may be attacked (צודה) on the way to testify about the new moon may carry clubs (even on Shabbos) to defend themselves.
מי שראה את החדש ואינו יכול להלך מוליכין אותו על החמור אפילו במטה אם צודה להן לוקחין בידן מקלות
The Yerushalmi to that Mishna appears to have a problem with the wording:
א"ר יצחק דיברה התורה בכל לשון (בראשית כד) והאיש משתאה לה כל גרב שהוא מחזיק סאתים אם צודה להם לוקחים בידן מקלות
Rabbi Yitzchak said: The Torah speaks in any language. ‘The man was amazed to her’ (Gen. 24:21). Any barrel that can hold two seah (Terumos 10:8). If there is risk of an attack to them, they may take clubs in their hands.
According to the Korban HaEida, our Mishna should have written “ואם צודה עליהם” - if there is a risk of ambush against them - rather than to them. Similarly, considering its context, the Mishna in Terumos should have read “כל גרב שיש בו סאתים” - that contains - rather than that could contain.
The fact that those Mishnayos used “incorrect” grammatical constructs supports Rabbi Yitzchak’s claim about the Torah’s similar “incorrect” usage. Specifically, The Torah should have said about Avraham’s slave Eliezer “והאיש משתאה אליה” (“about her”) rather than “to her”.
That’s worth digesting.
But it’s only the beginning. Because Rabbi Akiva Eiger in his notes to that Yerushalmi points out that the Korban HaEida must have been unaware of a teshuva of the Rashba (תשובת רשב"א ח"א תקכג) that understands Rabbi Yitzchak’s opinion differently.
The Rashba begins by disagreeing with his unnamed correspondent who, like the Korban HaEida, had claimed that the two Mishnayos and the passage about Eliezer were all part of a single topic. The Rashba acknowledged that he himself wasn’t completely confident with his understanding of the Gemara and hoped a wise teacher could one day fix that.
But in the meantime he felt that Rabbi Yitzchak’s three examples weren’t brought as proof that the Torah or the rabbis sometimes use “incorrect” grammar, but that they sometimes make unusual vocabulary choices. In other words, the Mishna’s word “צודה" would normally be used in the context of hunting rather than an attack. And the use of גרב in Terumos to describe a container for liquid is far less common than a word like, say, חבית (barrel).
Similarly, the use of משתאה in Gen. 24:21 to describe being delayed or rendered speechless is not at all a normal usage.
The bottom line, according to the Rashba, is that according to Rabbi Yitzchak, the Torah’s example teaches the rabbis that it’s appropriate to use unusual vocabulary. But not that they should feel free to “break” grammatical rules.
I have no desire to take sides between the Korban HaEidah and the Rashba. But I’m fascinated that even the Rashba himself is unsure how to read the Yerushalmi. And that, according to both Rashba and Korban HaEidah, there’s a limit to how consistently we can apply our knowledge of basic language usage to Torah sources.
It’s almost like the meanings of many Torah sources are too ambiguous to reliably nail down, or something.
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